Is The Church The Next Frontier for Reality TV? TLC’s The Sisterhood (of First Ladies) Gears Up For Prime Time

sisterhoodThink The Real Housewives of Atlanta—the men, the fashion, the drama. Now, just add the church.

So begins People Magazine’s exclusive sneak peak of what is expected to be one of the most controversial new reality TV shows set to debut in January, “The Sisterhood.”

The show, set in Atlanta, delves into the public and personal lives of a group of preachers’ wives as they assist in their husbands’ ministries, and address their own real life dramas behind the scenes. And for this group of women that includes their sex lives, vanity, non-traditional ways and somewhat colored pasts, all of which TLC hopes will make for “sin-sational” television and ratings.

Don’t expect to see any of Atlanta’s mega church first ladies—including Taffi Dollar, Nina Bronner, and Sandra Stanley, though some of them were believed to have been approached. Instead the cast is made up of new faces. There’s Christina Murray (Pastor Anthony Murray, Oasis Family Life Church in Dallas, Georgia), DeLana Rutherford (Pastor Myles Rutherford, Worship With Wonders Church), Ivy Couch (Pastor Mark Couch, Emmanuel Tabernacle), Pastor Dominique Scott (Good Life Church) and Tara Lewis (Pastor Brian Lewis, Phenomenal Life Today), none of whom fit the traditional first lady mode.

One look at Lewis and you’d never know she was a first lady let alone a pastor. A self-described fitness queen, Lewis says her style of dress is in sync with her love for working out.

“I don’t fit the traditional perception of a pastor or the hat-wearing first lady,” the 41-year-old Dallas, TX native has said. “I am modest, but I do wear fitted clothes. I eat right and work out too hard to have to cover up.”

But don’t let her buff physique fool you. She can go toe-to-toe on Bible scripture; is fired up over the word of God; and practices what she preaches—having met her husband at a gym in Venice before she led him to Christ.

To that end the mother of three and co-pastor with her husband Brian of the Phenomenal Life Today TV show, authored a book titled Fit, Fine and Fabulous: Seven Godly Principles to Live Fit.

Delana Rutherford co-pastors Worship With Wonders Church along with her husband, Myles and is the sister of gospel singer Wess Morgan. Non-traditional as well, she has rock star good looks and has been known to sport a nose ring on occasion.

Then there is former singer, Ivy Couch, whose husband Mark —the founder and overseer of Emmanuel Tabernacle Church— gifts her with a pair of handcuffs in the sneak preview; and Christina Murray who along with her husband, Anthony have established a blossoming mega-ministry just outside Atlanta in Dallas, Georgia. She’s Latina and he’s African American, giving way to the church’s multicultural following.

Rounding out the cast is Dominique Scott, dubbed “Pastor D,” whose flamboyance may just make her “the Nene of the bunch,” In the sneak preview, she points out to the ladies the house where she once smoked her first crack pipe. She and her husband, Brian “aka Pastor B,” co-pastor the Good Life Church International online.

“I believe everyone on this show was chosen by God for a reason and if anybody tells you that there aren’t a lot of things that factor into the decision to do this, they are lying,” said cast member Brian Lewis. “The intensity from the trailer and the clips is going to compel people to watch, but when they see Jesus, that’s going to get people to come to Christ. I really believe it, just as I believe there’s a million pastors in America that would love to change positions with us right now today.”

It was only a matter of time before reality TV infiltrated the church community after successful test runs with shows like The Mary Mary Show. Love it or hate it, unscripted television has forever altered the entertainment landscape. Be it The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Biggest Loser, The Apprentice or Basketball Wives, America is tuning in. Reality TV consistently captures the largest percentage of the audience watching the top 10 broadcast programs. In the 2007-2008 season, reality programming captured 77 percent of the total audience viewing those top 10 programs.

At least five “First Lady” or preacher’s wives projects were being shopped over the last year including Ladies in the Pulpit, featuring ordained evangelist Beverly Broadus-Green, the mother of Snoop Dogg.

In Los Angeles, singer, blogger, ordained minister and first lady Myesha Chaney— who co-hosted a weekly radio talk show with her husband—Real Life with Pastor Wayne and Myesha Chaney on KJLH 102.3 FM— is one of four women who signed on to do a reality TV pilot for Lifetime Television keying in on the lives of women whose husbands are involved in the ministry in Los Angeles.

Chaney joined Rinnita Thompson, wife of Pastor Xavier Thompson (Southern Missionary Baptist Church), Yvette Williams, wife of Pastor C. Dennis Williams (formerly Brookins Community AME Church and now Dallas’) and Leslie Young, wife of Youth Pastor Jonathan Young (Church of God Pentecostal) in the cast for the pilot.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to allow people to peer into the lives of us preachers wives,” said Chaney. “It is a world that many people may not know about but would find rather interesting and engaging as preachers’ wives juggle the expectations of others, church responsibilities, community activism, personal spirituality and the daily pressures of maintaining a household.’

Though involved with two other reality show concepts, Pastor Wayne Chaney had reservations about his wife’s involvement.

“Like anything else, it’s not the reality show that’s the challenge. It’s the medium. It depends on who has control of the content. There have to be people within the process that value the voice and concerns of the religious community.”

Producers of the show had originally sought the involvement of Pastor Beverly “Bam” Crawford, senior pastor of Bible Enrichment Fellowship International, the largest church in the state to be led by a black woman.

“I think that with the right producer, it could be a great opportunity,” Crawford said. “My concern was mainly that God has given pastors a voice. And what I wasn’t willing to do was to release the control of my word, thoughts opinions, nor compromise my relationship with my congregants.

“It’s very rare to find a producer with integrity towards the church. Without that, reality TV is dangerous. It’s putting way too much control in the hands and minds of people who don’t respect God and the relationship the pastor has.

“I definitely had some concerns of what message was being sent and communicated,” said Pastor Xavier Thompson, whose wife, Rinnita was also involved.

“The picture secular Hollywood wanted them to portray was of them being at each other throats which makes for juicy TV but not church relations so there were definitely moments where I held my breath in discussing the activity of the day as it relates to the other first ladies involved. I didn’t want my wife to sell her soul at the expense of an hour of fame, but yet years of embarrassment.

“I believe the church and pastors and their respective families are already under enough scrutiny without reality TV and to involve herself with my blessings was cause for guarded concern.”

Adds Chaney, “There’s great possibility in utilizing that medium. But it can go horribly wrong if you don’t have the right people in place.

Within 24 hours of airing their exclusive preview of  “The Sisterhood”, people were already vilifying the women, one of whom discusses where she smoked her first crack pipe and another, whose husband presents her with a pair of handcuffs, talks about their healthy sex lives.

Posting as coming from “a true first lady,” one online commenter wrote, “This is going to be such a joke and glory to God will be nowhere to be found. If they thought they were doing this show to let Christ shine…They got it backwards, their star is bigger than Christ’s. This show will be the tag line for much ridicule in the world. I just cannot understand how a Christian would sign up for this crap, let alone a preacher’s wife.”

“Truly we are in the end days,” wrote someone, who added: “Saints please pray.”

Not all of the comments, however, were bad.

“As a first lady and a pastor I’m looking forward to seeing this,” wrote one reader. “I like when people keep it real! I have tattoos. I argue with people at times. I work my Godly sexy and it is a hard position!”

And from another who viewed the preview, came this: “That clip did what it was suppose to do. Get your attention! The naysayers will be among the first to watch the show. Stop being hypocritical! You don’t have to defend God. He can do it Himself.”

Fact is, “sin-sational TV” isn’t the aim of all of the reality shows targeting the church community.

Last year, Joel Osteen, whose Houston-based Lakewood Church is the nation’s largest church congregation, signed an agreement with Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice) to develop a reality television show based on the church’s outreach to communities in need.

“Sort of like Extreme Home Makeover, Osteen told reporters, adding “When I think of reality shows, I think of cameras following you, doing nothing. We don’t want to do just a reality show. We want to do something that inspires people and makes them better. It’s not only entertaining and fun, but leaves some kind of message.”

Marvin Sapp is featured in a reality show focusing on raising his family as a single dad. KnockTV recently launched Surrender the Secret, telling the real-life abortion stories of five women and their healing journey using an eight-session Bible study. And BYUtv’s “The District” chronicles the gospel-filled adventures of eight real-life Mormon missionaries.

Holly Davis Carter of Releve Entertainment believes that reality and TV can mix if standards are held.

“What we can’t do,” said Carter, “is to make unscripted television the way we’ve seen it. If we do it that way, we perpetuate the images and messages that we, as a body, are supposed to be against.“When it works, reality TV provides the opportunity to give some level of transparency to point people to the truth. It gives us another platform to speak, but we’ve got to speak correctly and not get caught up in the foolishness out there.”

Davis who has a producer credit on a reality show that is currently airing, has two Christian-themed reality shows in the works, one of which involves a high profile pastor and first lady.

“Reality TV can be just as beneficial as it can be detrimental. It’s all in what you project and how you project it. At the end of the day, we’re still believers and people are mocking us. If we don’t set the tone, we may as well blend in,” said Davis.“You can’t just have yes people around you. People will look at your life and turn against your ministry. Even with the one we’re working on now, that one is a little more risky because it’s a true docu-series. Again, there has to be a barometer— someone who says you’re crossing the line. This is not good for your ministry…your look. There are times when I find myself having to say ‘let’s not do this.’

What it boils down to for those like Crawford is integrity.

“It’s a shame that we [the church] succumb to this kind of entertainment when we are a viable segment of the populace. We’re not utilizing the power of the airwaves as we could be doing,” said Crawford.

“On the one hand we, as ministries, spend a lot of money on air time to get our messages out to the community, but we can’t start allowing producers, film companies and cable networks—whose bottom line is dollars—to have access to our lives and churches and exploit that.

“The sad thing is that everyone wants to be star and some are willing to sacrifice their integrity, their loyalty and even their allegiance to God in the process. Whether or not that is the case with this project or those that come after it, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

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